- Future of the Brain: Essays by the World's Leading Neuroscientists ed. by Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman
Gary Marcus and Jeremy Freeman. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, NJ, U.S.A., 2016. 304 pp., illus. Trade, paper. ISBN: 978-0-691-17331-3.
One of Times Higher Education's Best Books of 2015, Future of the Brain offers a compilation of original essays by leading brain researchers. The book is divided into seven sections, and the range and disparities of the authors' views underscore the lack of an overarching theory for researchers to apply to studies in this area. Cross-references among chapters do, however, remind us that science itself succeeds through communication among scientists about what their data says. Also noteworthy is that, even given the spectrum of views, most of the authors share a "we can do this" attitude: They are confident that scientists can and will eventually understand the brain. Suffice it to say, as Gary Marcus, one of the book's two editors, notes, "Neuroscience today is a collection of facts, rather than ideas; what is missing is connective tissue. We know (or think we know) roughly what neurons do, and that they communicate with one another, but not what they are communicating" (p. 205).
The first section, on mapping the brain, presents connectome projects. This idea (along with computation, the subject of the second section) is the primary research paradigm presented in the book. Essays by Mike Hawrylycz, Misha Ahrens, Christof Koch, Anthony Zador and George Church set the stage for this book's survey of current efforts to understand brain connectivity through mapping and imaging neural activities of mice, strategies for reverse engineering and so forth. The second section, on computation, includes essays by May-Britt and Edvard Moser, Krishna Shenoy, Olaf Sporns and Jeremy Freeman. Together the two sections argue that the brain is an organ of computation and that scientists need to figure out what the brain is computing.
The emphasis on connectivity within these two sections brought to mind that one of the most extraordinary controversies in Nobel Prize history involved moving the emphasis away from brain connectivity. In 1906, Camillo Golgi (1844–1926) and Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852–1934) jointly shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine despite their philosophical differences. This pairing was logical because Golgi had developed the staining method used by Cajal to advance his neuron doctrine, the prevailing paradigm for research on the basic structure of the nervous system in the twentieth century. In other words, both men had pioneered the procedure used in the new era, even as the two fiercely differed on how to ultimately characterize their findings about overall brain operations. The depth of their disagreement was on full display during the ceremony when, to the surprise of many, Golgi used this platform to argue against Cajal's "neuron doctrine" in a speech titled "The Neuron Doctrine—Theory and Facts." Defying the growing evidence that supported Cajal's view that the nervous system is made up of discrete individual cells, Golgi argued for reticular theory, a nineteenth-century scientific theory that surmised that everything in the nervous system is a part of a single continuous network. Moreover, his Nobel speech argued, the nervous network concept he defended was needed:
What I have just said of the network, on its structure and, above all, on the fact that all the parts of the central nervous system make up a part of it, proves the anatomical and functional continuity between nerve cells. And that is the reason why I have not been able to accept the idea of this independence of each nerve cell which is the essential basis of the neuron theory.
Whether the worm has turned is a question that is unfortunately outside of this book's scope. Instead, after establishing the value of studying connectivity and computation, Sean Hill and Chris Eliasmith introduce brain simulation efforts in the third section, while David Poeppel and Simon E. Fisher outline human language projects in the fourth. The fifth section, titled "Skeptics," is the strongest in...